Veterans History Project chronicles myriad stories of everyday heroes
March 15, 2013
A stringent endeavor is underway to record servicemembers' war time experiences -- especially veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
The equation involving documenting surviving veterans is turning into a desperate predicament. The subtraction of elderly American veterans presently continues. On average, 600 to 700 World War II servicemen pass away each day and the survivor numbers continue to dwindle from the Korean and Vietnam conflict columns.
On stand-by is the Veterans History Project, a part of the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center. The project's goals are to multiply the number of first-hand war-era biographies and pictures for future Americans to examine and research.
Now more than a decade old, VHP has collected more than 86,000 video, audio and written collections of servicemembers from World War I to present-day Afghanistan. The project is volunteer-based, with individuals and organizations from throughout the country conducting audio and video interviews of veterans' everyday activities.
"This isn't about the grand and the glorious -- although we have some grand and glorious stories -- as I often say, from the cockpit to the foxhole, it is also from the mess hall to the motor pool," Veterans History Project Director Bob Patrick. "Everybody's story is important. That's what we always emphasize."
Sharing war stories has become a common thread of American family reunions and picnics, and that is where the VHP idea was born -- at a family Midwestern picnic.
"It was a Father's Day weekend, and we were sitting around the picnic table in the back yard. It was my dad, who was from the Korea generation and my uncle, his brother, who was flying bomber missions during the second world war in the south Pacific. They started talking about their experiences in the military… So I told them to stop, and I ran in the house and grabbed the family video camera and set it up," Wisconsin Congressman Ron Kind said about his dual role as an impromptu videographer.
Kind traveled back to Washington and drafted legislation with the assistance of Senators Max Cleland and Chuck Hagel (the current Secretary of Defense) and Representatives Steny Hoyer and Amo Houghton, and in record time, Congress created the Veterans History Project.
The premise behind the project involves elementary arithmetic. Combine civic groups, schools, veterans homes, veteran's organizations, hospices -- those willing to volunteer as interviewers -- with willing veterans and add a video or audio recorder and part of the collection is produced.
"When Congress set this up, they didn't give us a pile of money to go out and get a bunch of oral historians. They thought this needed to be a volunteer effort," Patrick said. "[The thought was] We needed to get communities involved and service organizations involved. We certainly need to get young people involved. We want that proponent of a young student -- the younger generation -- talking to an older person about their experience."
A volunteer nationwide effort has been undertaken during the past dozen years to urge those who hunkered in Battle of the Bulge snow or servicemen who withstood the Tet Offensive to tell their stories.
With the Department of Defense currently observing the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, the Veterans History Project will proudly assist any vet who served in Southeast Asia during that time period. The VHP notes that 35 percent of all living U.S. military veterans served during the Vietnam era.
"Understand, we are not abandoning the Korean War [vets] and the World War II guys, but we have to really start thinking about [gathering] the Vietnam [stories]," Patrick said, as a total of 14,000 Vietnam vets have contributed to the project. "These guys aren't getting any younger either. They are the next big group we need to start focusing on. We need to get their stories."
While surrounded by pictures of USO shows and nurses aiding wounded warriors in hospitals, Patrick added that the project will accept certain World War II homefront stories.
"We'll take Rosie the Riveter accounts and USO entertainers and Red Cross people," he said. "But we only take first-person accounts." A major point behind the project is to digitally capture living history on a computer, DVD or compact disc.
"There are still many stories out there which need to be preserved," said Kind. "My uncle's [collection] is in there, and as for my dad, I still have his tape, but what I want to do is to re-interview him."
The public is invited to the Library of Congress' Madison Building to view or research the contributions. The office telephone number is 202-707-5510.
For information on obtaining a Veterans History Group field kit or how to become involved as a volunteer interviewer, contact the VHG at vhpcongressional @loc.gov or visit www.loc.gov/vets.